The holiday season is nearly upon us: Thanksgiving, soon to be followed by Christmas. Times of merriment, good fellowship, and banqueting—and times, for many evangelicals, of guilt-ridden, conscience-striken breast-beating. How can we kill the fatted calf (even if we can still afford the inflationary beast) when others less fortunate do not have one? Should we not instead try to get by on the barest minimum, in protest against the consumer society and its values? One West Coast evangelical couple has recently written in behalf of “Christian poverty,” describing the humble, sanctified growing of their own vegetables (and their own attempt at making toothpaste, which, however, proved abrasive to the teeth).

Ambivalently torn by competing values, evangelicals realize dimly that they cannot reject the season’s festal board without contributing to the demise of holidays that are essentially or should be holy days; yet their Protestant work ethic and a somber strain of pietism cast a dark cloud of self-doubt over the candlelit table.

Last week, on November 13, in Paris, I had the temerity to accept the invitation of the French Gastronomical Academy to become one of its fifty living academicians, to occupy the chair named for Bertrand Guégan, the translator of Apicius and author of several classic works on cuisine. During the summer, I conducted two seminars on gastronomy in Strasbourg for the benefit of overflow audiences concerned with the significance of cuisine. Another sign of my hopelessly unsanctified state? Possibly, but bear with me; even Balaam’s ass—an eater of straw—had something to say.

I am convinced that evangelicals (whom some clever critic has called “the monks of Protestantism”) have so allowed their negative attitude toward “the world” to influence them that in the realm of eating, as in so many other realms (such as entertainment, dress, art, literature) they cut themselves off from God’s creative gifts. I believe, contra more than one evangelical, that gastronomy is not to be classed among the materialistic “lower immediacies,” at the bottom of the axiological ladder of values (to use the expression of the late Edward John Carnell of Fuller Seminary, in his Philosophy of the Christian Religion), but deserves transcendental status! In the words of the greatest of all writers on the subject, Brillat-Savarin (The Physiology of Taste), gourmandism far from representing the deadly sin of gluttony—which arises from its misuse—“denotes implicit obedience to the commands of the Creator, who bade us eat that we might live.”

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But here we must be careful, as with all discussion of the transcendental. Metaphysical speculations apart from revelation have been trivial at best, pompous at worst—mercifully relieved only by unconscious humor. The dangers relative to gastronomical speculation are hilariously set out in Marcel Rouff’s classic, The Life and Passion of Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet, where the hero, on a visit to Germany, encounters “Prof. Dokt. Hugo Stumm,” a philosopher who has already churned out the first 1,783 pages of his definitive Hegelian-Platonic masterpiece, “The Metaphysics of Cuisine,” and who, in order practically to reflect the transcendental purity of food as an Ideal, now eats nothing but boiled potatoes and cauliflower!

In this matter, as in all others that touch eternity, only scriptural revelation can keep us from speculative absurdity. But here many evangelicals are in for a surprise, for our sociological pietism has blinded us to a powerful biblical emphasis. Throughout Scripture, eating and drinking are regularly associated with events of the highest theological and spiritual importance.

The Bible opens with man’s fall—described in terms of choosing to eat not what God had provided but what he had forbidden (“Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”); it ends with the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, eschatologically restoring Eden and ushering in the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 19:9). The prime representation of grace under the Old Covenant was the Passover meal, and it foreshadowed the Sacrament of Eucharist, which our Lord expressly connects with the eternal Marriage Supper when he says: “I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29 and parallels). The centrality of feasting in the early Church is evidenced by its agapes or love feasts, and the observance of the “feasts” or “festivals” of the saints has been a vital part of Christian worship in all the historic confessional traditions.

The conclusion seems inescapable that the Lord of Scripture wants our meals—as the most basic and regular of our conscious activities—to remind us of things eternal. To be sure, our table graces are a halting recognition of this, but do we exercise our talents to prepare meals artistically and gastronomically worthy of the graces we say over them?

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The Alsatian Confrérie St-Etienne uses the invitatory: “Primo mirate, deinde gustate, tandem gaudete ad magnam Dei gloriam” (First look with wonder, then taste, finally give praise to God’s great glory). How many of our meals compel us to look with wonder and taste with praise? Could our reliance on TV dinners signify just the opposite of spirituality—a gross indifference to and ingratitude for God’s culinary gifts to us? As Brillat-Savarin aphoristically and uncomfortably put it: “Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are.”

This holiday season is it not time to apply Horatius Bonar’s Communion hymn in its widest sense?

Feast after feast thus comes and passes by,

Yet, passing, points to the glad feast above,

Giving sweet foretaste of the festal joy,

The Lamb’s great bridal feast of bliss and love.

Sociologist Peter Berger, in his Rumor of Angels, notes that certain activities, from children’s games to great concerts, can link one to eternity, for as one is caught up in them time and mortality seem momentarily arrested and a window opens on another world. Banquets and feasts can be like that. If you listen very closely at your Thanksgiving or Christmas table, you may just hear the flutter of angels’ wings: a cloud of witnesses rejoicing with you, waiting to welcome you to an even greater banquet.

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